John Forster

John Forster

Privacy not breached

OTTAWA — The head of Canada’s eavesdropping agency says a controversial effort to understand airport wireless systems did not breach the privacy of Canadians.

OTTAWA — The head of Canada’s eavesdropping agency says a controversial effort to understand airport wireless systems did not breach the privacy of Canadians.

John Forster told a Senate committee Monday that Communications Security Establishment Canada was merely collecting electronic metadata — or data trails about messages — and not the actual content of those messages and calls.

A document obtained by CBC — originally leaked by former American spy contractor Edward Snowden — indicates the pilot project was intended to help the agency locate kidnappers and terrorists.

The CSEC slide presentation suggests information was taken from an unidentified Canadian airport’s free Wi-Fi system over a two-week period.

But Forster told the senators that’s not so.

“This exercise involved a snapshot of historical metadata collected from the global Internet,” he said.

“No data was collected through any monitoring of the operations of any airport — just part of our normal global collection.”

The spy agency was trying to build a mathematical model to help determine a communication pattern at a public location, in this case an airport, he said.

The May 2012 presentation says the project could help security officials zero in on a kidnapper based in a rural area who travelled to a city to make ransom calls.

Forster said intelligence officials know terrorists or hostage-takers will often use public spaces, like an airport or cafe, to access the Internet, “because they’re trying to hide in plain sight.”

“So the model is very helpful, it can save time or work in an incident where time is critical.”

The model has subsequently been used in at least two cases to identify legitimate foreign targets, he said.

Ottawa-based CSEC monitors foreign computer, satellite, radio and telephone traffic of people, states, organizations and terrorist groups for information of intelligence interest to Canada.

It is a key player in the Five Eyes intelligence network that includes partner agencies from the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

CSEC is forbidden from targeting the private communications of Canadians.

However, metadata is not considered a private communication for the spy service’s purposes.

Some civil libertarians and privacy advocates say the agency’s metadata monitoring is worrisome because even such seemingly innocuous material can reveal a lot about a person, such as their location and who they are contacting — in some cases even their religious or political beliefs.

Forster steadfastly denied CSEC was using metadata to build profiles of Canadians. In fact, metadata helps the agency screen out the content of Canadian messages, he said.

“I think metadata — in terms of a foreign signals intelligence agency — is pretty essential. We wouldn’t be able to find or locate foreign targets without it. It also helps us to make sure that we are not targeting Canadian private communications,” Forster said.

“We would not be using metadata to build profiles of Canadians, and their religious affinity and their political (allegiance).

“We have no interest in doing that. Our focus is to find foreign targets overseas.”

If the agency did abuse such information, CSEC’s own employees would be blowing the whistle, Forster said.

Earlier, Stephen Rigby, national security adviser to the prime minister, told the senators he was “not totally persuaded” that CSEC had “ tapped into” an airport Wi-Fi system.

After his appearance, Rigby said the collection of metadata has been “confirmed as being legal” and that CSEC had not broken the law.

Snowden, who once worked as a contractor on National Security Agency systems, leaked hundreds of documents about the NSA and its partners.

Rigby said during the committee hearing the revelations had “put a very intense spotlight” on how intelligence agencies work and with whom they collaborate.

“The disclosures raise a number of challenges for governments as they grapple with how to respond,” Rigby said.

“We need to take time to consider an appropriate response that is suited to our particular circumstances here in Canada.”

Forster said the leaks had prompted CSEC to review its dealings with outside contractors.

“So we’re going through that process now.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

File photo
Gov’t of Alberta identifies estimated 300 new COVID-19 cases Sunday

Online COVID-19 dashboard unavailable as upgrades being completed

The Central Alberta Freestyle Ski Club is hoping to win $50,000 through the Mackenzie Investments Top Peak contest. (Contributed photo)
Central Alberta ski club trying to win $50K in online contest

A central Alberta ski club has entered a contest where it can… Continue reading

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Red Deer dips below 300 active COVID-19 cases

The number of active COVID-19 cases in Red Deer continued to drop… Continue reading

Ben King scores for the Red Deer Rebels during the third period of a Western Hockey League game against the Calgary Hitmen at the Westerner Park Centrium Saturday. (Photo by Rob Wallator/Red Deer Rebels)
Rebels complete comeback to pick up first win of season

Rebels 3 Hitmen 2 (OT) The Red Deer Rebels were able to… Continue reading

Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan takes part in a year-end interview with The Canadian Press at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa on December 17, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Conservatives to call top Sajjan, Trudeau aides to testify on Vance allegations

OTTAWA — The federal Conservatives plan to summon two senior Liberal aides… Continue reading

Elvira D'Angelo, 92, waits to receive her COVID-19 vaccination shot at a clinic in Montreal, Sunday, March 7, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
‘It’s been a good week’: Tam hopeful on vaccines as pandemic anniversary nears

Several provinces were preparing to loosen COVID-19 restrictions on Sunday, as Canada’s… Continue reading

Mount Pearl Senior High in Mount Pearl, N.L., remains closed on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. The provincial health authority says there were 185 cases at 22 schools, including 145 infections among staff and students of one high school in Mount Pearl that was an early epicentre of the outbreak. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly
In Newfoundland and Labrador, three ingredients made for explosive COVID-19 outbreak

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — With her classes, three part-time jobs and a… Continue reading

A passenger places a tag on luggage at the departure terminal at Toronto Pearson Airport, in Mississauga, Ont., Friday, May 24, 2019. The economic and life disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted many recent immigrants to leave Canada and return to their countries of origin, where they have more social and familial connections. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
COVID-19 pandemic prompts recent newcomers to leave Canada for their home countries

OTTAWA — The economic and life disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic… Continue reading

Rail cars wait for pickup in Winnipeg, Sunday, March 23, 2014. The fierce debate over cross-border pipelines is putting more Canadian oil and gas on trains destined for the United States — a country experts fear is ill-equipped for the potential consequences. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods
As debate rages over cross-border pipelines, U.S. analysts brace for more oil by rail

WASHINGTON — The fierce debate over cross-border pipelines is putting more Canadian… Continue reading

Pictures and notes in from friends and classmates make up a memorial in support and memory of Aubrey Berry, 4, and her sister Chloe, 6, during a vigil held at Willows Beach in Oak Bay, B.C., on December 30, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Mother of slain daughters supports recent changes to Canada’s Divorce Act

VICTORIA — Legal experts and a mother whose ex-partner was convicted of… Continue reading

Radio and television personality Dick Smyth is shown in an undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO
Dick Smyth, Canadian maestro of news radio commentary, dies at 86

TORONTO — Radio and television personality Dick Smyth, whose booming commentary filled… Continue reading

Walter Gretzky father of hockey hall-of-famer Wayne Gretzky waves to fans as the Buffalo Sabres play against the Toronto Maple Leafs during third period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Tuesday, January 17, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Funeral for Walter Gretzky to be held Saturday in home town of Brantford, Ont.

The funeral for hockey legend Wayne Gretzky’s father Walter will take place… Continue reading

Most Read